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'Conscience' Law Unconscionable, Critics Say

Florida House of Representatives

Religious freedom is more important than the bond between a mother and child. As Jim Ash reports, that appears to be the view of some Republican conservatives who want to give adoption agencies the right to discriminate against gays and lesbians.

On a recent Wednesday in a tiny courtroom on Thomsaville Road, Leon County Judge Ron Flury made Mary Bridges an adoptive mother.

It was a long time coming.

Mary’s been raising her kids with her partner Fran for 22 years. But since she didn’t give birth to them, and since she’s gay, Mary was never a legal mother. She jokes that she’s signed hundreds of school and medical records she probably shouldn’t have.

“There’s just an intrinsic value to being accepted as part of the legal institution and to be a legal parent is going to be a good feeling.”

Florida’s 1977 ban on gay adoptions was overturned by the courts five years ago.  Now, conservative Republicans are pushing back.

At a time when the state is looking for homes for 670 foster children, Representative Jason Brodeur of Sanford is sponsoring a bill that would give private adoption agencies the right to turn away prospective gay parents.

Fran shakes her head.

“I think the ideology for that is just hate and ignorance and I think over time, we’ll get there.”

The subject is tying the Legislature in knots.

On March 11, Republican Representative Dennis Baxley of Ocala, a former director of the Christian Coalition, urged his chamber to lift the gay adoption ban with a stirring floor speech.

“As an adoptive father of two of my five children, I can tell you right now, I believe in the urgency of giving a child permanency.”

Two days later, he changed his mind.

“This has all been an internal struggle for me and Friday morning I just woke up with moral clarity that what was, what is, a wonderful bill has pushed me into a position of affirming homosexuality.”

Brodeur’s bill is called a “conscience protection” measure. It allows private agencies to refuse to perform adoptions if doing so would violate their written religious or moral convictions or policies

The Catholic Church stopped performing adoptions in Boston rather than comply with anti-discrimination laws. Republican Representative Matt Hudson of Naples says Florida can protect religious freedom or risk the same fate.

“But as it stands now, I certainly think that people that have a belief and a standard and a moral code by which they live by should be allowed to exercise that.”

Katy Martin, a spokeswoman for Florida Baptist Children’s Home, says Brodeuer’s bill won’t change much for her network, but it will be welcomed.

“So what this legislation would do if it were passed is preserve the status quo for faith-based organizations to place children in care while following their faith and their beliefs and their convictions.”

Does the status quo mean denying gays and lesbians the right to adopt?

“But if they don’t follow our criteria as far as what we’re founded on and that is the Baptist faith, then we would encourage them to adopt. We have referral services to show them the organization that might be best for them.”

Baptist Children’s Homes does receive state money, but not for private adoption services.

Protecting discrimination could end up leaving too many children without a loving home, says Madonna Finney, legislative director for the Florida Adoption  

“The state is ignoring, or may be ignoring, some very viable families for children because the community based care provider has some deeply held belief.”

Brodeur’s bill is heading for the House floor on Wednesday.

A Miami native, former WFSU reporter Jim Ash is an award-winning journalist with more than 20 years of experience, most of it in print. He has been a member of the Florida Capital Press Corps since 1992.